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7 minutes reading time (1382 words)

Inclusion: Part 4, Music knows no walls


The words above the entrance doors in the Camille Griffin Graham Correctional Institution of Columbia, South Carolina, read, "Living a life that matters doesn't happen by accident. It's not a matter of circumstance but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters. Attitude is everything." Each Tuesday morning, I walk beneath these words to meet with four female inmates for piano lessons. The process of reaching them takes me past a guarded entrance, down a winding road that slopes through fields, through a series of locked gates and doors, and a metal detector. When considering inclusivity, I'm aware that it is this journey across and in that creates the greatest challenge for me. These students are physically as near as many places in my city, yet in their separation they are farther away. 

The image of student and teacher seated together at a piano is one that has spanned generations. The characters and place may change, yet the spirit remains the same. The piano at Camille Graham is located in the gymnasium; this is where it is used for weekly religious services. The space is needed for a variety of activities, but Coach Cain and Chaplains Cruse and Truitt of Camille Graham arranged to accommodate piano lessons in the weekly schedule. For lessons the piano is often wheeled into a smaller exercise room, so activities can occur simultaneously in the gym. It is here in this room where four women come, one by one, each week for a 30-minute piano lesson.

Piano lesson at Camille Griffin correctional institute.

The content and fundamental purpose of the lessons is the same as that of a lesson for a student in any other place. What may surprise you about teaching in an environment such as this, and what stands out to me, is the sheer eagerness for learning, the focus and effort of each student, and yes, every week, the laughter! In each lesson, there is a strong element of joy in making music. One student, still in her first weeks of lessons, played a song using the white keys, C, D, and E, and utilizing hand crossings to play groups across the piano. I had looked at this piece many times as a simple exercise in recognizing white keys that could be skipped over. When I demonstrated it to her, this student's face lit up with a broad smile. She laughed and exclaimed, "It is so beautiful, SO beautiful." She sat down and played it herself with an inspiring amount of joy. 

The women in the piano program at Camille Graham impress me with their bravery and willingness to perform and share the music they are making with others. Many adult students often feel apprehensive and reluctant to perform for an audience. These women are eager to perform in the recitals that are offered twice yearly, in the winter and in the spring. Before the most recent recital, some of the students taking lessons were new beginners. They had only had three or four lessons. I let them know they were not obligated to perform, yet every student wanted to. For the recital, the piano was placed in the center of the gym. Beside it, a sound system was set up, and chairs were in a line for performers. Close to one hundred inmates attended the performance. The four students currently in lessons performed, as well as two students who had previously taken lessons in the program but were unable to continue due to scheduling. In addition to the piano in the gym, students have two other instruments available for practice: a keyboard with headphones in the Chaplain's office area and a keyboard with headphones in the housing building. Practice time is limited, so each student also has a short paper tabletop keyboard to aid in physical practice without sound. Students have shared with me many examples of how they use their hands to practice on tables, bedcovers, or their own laps, as well as showing me long fold-out keyboards drawn with pencil on pages of paper taped together. One student said of playing piano, "I work to get to the place where it's just me and the piano making music. I can feel it — I can close my eyes and I can just be there."

Over my six years of teaching piano at women's correctional institutions, more than twenty women have taken lessons. Students are selected in order from a sign-up list, and once securing a spot, may retain that spot unless and until circumstances prohibit it. There are some students I have seen for only several lessons, some for a semester, and others have taken lessons for years. Lessons for students have stopped due to a variety of reasons such as scheduling conflicts, changes in their work responsibilities at the institution, or when they are released to go home. The current waiting list has the names of 39 women waiting for an opportunity to take lessons. A student who has been in the program at Camille Graham since spring 2017 said, 
"I was the first one to sign up… Since then I have kept attending my weekly class because it is another positive thing in a negative environment like this. Dr. Hamilton is patient and supportive of me every week. The music session is soothing for me. Before I began this class, I knew nothing about how the piano works, but now I have completed the beginner's book and am well on my way to learning and discovering so much

more about music and the piano. I am grateful and excited that the Department of Corrections has allowed inmates the opportunity to take piano lessons."

The outcomes of lessons for adult piano students vary. Just like the adult students in my home studio, my students at Camille Graham work week by week to develop their playing skills at the piano, build a growing understanding of musical notation and repertoire, and follow an individual path of musical development influenced by unique preferences for styles of music and goals. Some of these students may continue playing the piano for individual joy, some aspire to share their musical gifts and help others learn, and one may continue with music as a profession. One student in this piano program began in 2012 and continued lessons for more than five years. She now plays piano for weekly religious services at the institution and leads and accompanies the choir. Although changes in her work assignment do not allow her to attend lessons anymore, she continues to practice on her own. It is my hope and expectation that when she goes home in the coming year, she will continue to use her musical talent and the skills she has developed. She has expressed interest in church musicianship, song-writing, music theory, music therapy, and has a dream to offer music instruction to children in an after-school program who may not otherwise have access. It is my hope that she is met on the outside with opportunity. She has shown her will, dedication, and sincerely moving musical expressiveness in all she has accomplished as a pianist in the past years. Her talent was always inside her, waiting only for opportunity.

Music is inclusive, and access to music education should be inclusive. The act of teaching music is a human act, and the act of making music is a human act. To create is, to an extent, to reveal oneself. In the act of creating music, one says, "This is me, these are my efforts, I am making and shaping this sound." The teacher's response has not only a musical effect, but a human effect. Teaching can be not only an act of educating, but also an act of caring. In a music lesson, teacher and student come together as people with a common purpose. In this togetherness, one sees plainly that any ideas of the female students in this program as "other" or as separate and different are a myth. Music can come from any hands. Music does not know how many walls may surround it. It lives the same for maker and listener in any place it is brought to life.

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Inclusion: Part 3, The Celebrating the Spectrum Pi...
April 28


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